South-west rail network resilience

During the late evening of Tuesday 4th February 2014 a storm surge breached the sea wall carrying the railway at Dawlish. Eighty metres of track were left hanging, the adjacent road cut and several houses undermined. This had the effect of cutting off Cornwall and half of Devon from the rest of the UK railway network. Network Rail used shipping containers filled with rubble to prevent further erosion of the breach in the sea wall.
Cropped photo (taken on 15/02/2014) of the destruction of the sea wall at Dawlish, which caused the railway t be closed for two months
The line reopened as planned on 4th April 2014.

On 8th February 2014 both lines to Taunton from the east were also closed by flooding whilst Whiteball Tunnel was already closed for maintenance, and the South-Western line to Exeter was closed by a landslip at Crewkerne, leaving Exeter and Taunton totally isolated. These lines were all reopened by 10th March 2014.

The economy of the South-West cannot afford to be cut off for long periods of time again in future. In November 2012 Railfuture published Railway Flooding in Devon: Observations & Recommendations which can be viewed or downloaded. These recommendations have yet to be actioned. At our Taunton conference in 2013, the speaker John Dora of John Dora Consulting, a former Network Rail engineer, warned about environmental problems and referred particularly to the sea wall. A study published in the Journal of Transport Geography in December 2015 claimed that rail services to and from the South West of England could be disrupted for more than ten per cent of each year by 2040 and almost a third by 2100.

When the damage had been repaired, Railfuture called for:
  • A stakeholder conference to agree levels of service required in normal operation and during weather disruption or planned work
  • DfT to commission Network Rail to design and plan additional routes to achieve levels of service and promote economic growth
  • DfT to commit funding to implement a faster, continuously available rail link with the South-West within a decade.
The Peninsula Rail Task Force, a stakeholder group comprising local authorities, Local Enterprise Parnerships and transport campaigners, was set up to speak with one voice for the south-west. Network Rail set up a study to generate an appraisal of alternative scenarios in relation to the maintenance of connectivity for the south west peninsula in the event that the Dawlish coastal route is not available due to severe weather events or maintenance requirements. The West of Exeter Route Resilience Study report was published on 15th July 2014. Journey time improvements which are needed to promote economic growth were covered separately by the Network Rail Western Route Study.

The south west Peninsula Rail Task Force gave the Government its 3 point plan for improving the rail lines in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall to support economic growth. It asked for:
  • Greater capacity and comfort (newer rolling stock)
  • Faster journey times and better connectivity (electrification)
  • Resilience and reliability (reinforcement of the existing route, a Dawlish Avoiding Line and reopening of the northern route via Okehampton).
The current main line via Dawlish has to remain as the main route because of the major population centres along its length. Breakwaters are needed around Dawlish as it is not the sea height that does the damage, but the wave action. Additionally the cliffs around Teignmouth need significant rock bolting; we can see from the Harbury Tunnel landslip how long this can take to put right.

The Destination Okehampton group of local councils is pressing for the northern route to provide resilience and promote economic growth in the area, and has received support from transport ministers. A fully dual track northern route with brand new Meldon Viaduct was quoted by the Network Rail study at £875m. However, a feasibility study currently being undertaken will look at whether a single line with long dynamic loops can perform as well and whether the original viaduct is repairable. Campaigners for the northern route have also asked for the feasibility study to look at easing of curves at Coleford and Crediton, which crucially would improve line speed to 90mph-110mph throughout between Exeter and Sampford Courtenay. There have been reports of Network Rail personnel at Meldon Viaduct and also at Sourton, which is close to junction of the A30 and A386, the logical location for a parkway station serving North Cornwall.

The first priority for the South-West must be to ensure that connectivity is maintained, both for Plymouth and the large number of communities between Exeter and Newton Abbot. Therefore Railfuture consider that the sequence in which enhancements are implemented should be:
  1. Strengthen the existing route.
  2. Reinstate the Okehampton route, for the following reasons:
    • We believe that a city the size of Plymouth, and of its strategic significance, should not depend on a single route to connect it to the national network. No other city in England of this size and importance is constrained in this way. Plymouth lost £600,000 per day when Dawlish was closed. Devon and Cornwall lost up to £1.2billion in total
    • Apart from the risk of damage to the coastal section of the line, possessions for routine maintenance and renewals, and indeed for the major task of electrification, require an alternative for Plymouth and for Cornwall. Reliance on buses for this task is no longer appropriate and, indeed, becomes increasingly difficult as the number of passengers using the railway increases.
    • The Okehampton route could provide access to a wide area of West Devon and North Cornwall, which is today a very ‘transport poor’ area. The existing station at Okehampton and the proposed one at Tavistock could be supplemented by one or more stations to enable interchange from the A30, which would also take pressure of the stations and car parks at Exeter St David’s and Tiverton Parkway.
    • Improved access would support economic growth in West Devon and North Cornwall - Torridge has the lowest average wages of any area in England. The economies of Exeter and Plymouth would also benefit.
    • The line would also bring external benefits in terms of reducing road congestion in both Exeter and Plymouth by providing rail access, which currently does not exist in these corridors.
    • a additional, more easily graded route for freight which would ease pressure on capacity of the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot.
    • This route would provide the resilience required for less than half the cost of a Dawlish Avoiding Line, with only a marginal increase in journey time.
    • The route can be built incrementally: first by providing a regular Exeter-Okehampton service, then reopening Bere Alston - Tavistock; and finally by closing the 15 mile gap between Tavistock and Okehampton.
  3. Reduce journey times - a London – Plymouth sub-three-hour headline journey time should be achievable with relatively few interventions, for example line speed improvements, tilt technology or electrification.
Our brief Campaigning for better rail services for the South West of England by Chris Austin OBE can be viewed or downloaded; our response to Network Rail's Western Route Study can be viewed or downloaded; or read Philip Shelton's article 'The case for Okehampton'. There are also articles by Gerard Duddridge in Railwatch July 2014 (pdf page 6) and December 2014 (pdf page 7) on the alternative routes.

On 17 November 2016 Government announced £10million funding for rail resilience in the South West.

STOP PRESS: February 2019
Network Rail features Dawlish five years on, including three videos in Dawlish + 5 and images of a new sea wall.

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